“Shania Twain Sang Me to Sleep” by Jessica Mundie

The first years of my life were exhausting. On August 11, 1998, I was placed in my mother’s loving arms, blue faced and cone-headed, after a 36-hour labour, forceps, and many stitches. Sleeplessness began before I had even made my appearance in the world.

Being my parent’s first child, they had no idea what to do with me. I am often reminded of the story of my homecoming: my parents placing my car seat on the coffee table, sharing a look, and my father asking, “What do we do now?”

Little did they know, the rest of my infanthood would be enshrouded by a blanket of colic.

Every evening, around dinner time, the wailing would begin. My mother would sit me in my highchair, beside her and my father at the dinner table, and they would try to talk over my loud screaming. It would continue long into the night. As most people turned off their lights and cuddled up in bed, my parents were awake trying to soothe their sad baby.

They desperately tried to shut me up: I was swaddled, massaged, bathed and nurtured, but I would not relent. Eventually, after many months of little sleep, they discovered I had two weaknesses: an endless desire for food and a love of Shania Twain.

In March of 1999, Twain’s Man! I Feel Like a Woman was released on North American country radio stations. This came seven months after my birth and about when my parents realized they were losing their minds.

I am not sure how my mother made the discovery, but to my parent surprise and extreme relief, they found that if I was bounced up and down, in an excruciatingly consistent manner, while listening to Shania Twain celebrate the prerogative of women everywhere, I would fall asleep.

I could not tell you why I loved Shania Twain so dearly. Maybe as a baby I was already identifying with my strong feminist values, or maybe I just loved Canadian country stars. Either way, now every time Man! I Feel Like a Woman comes on at my local country bar, I can be counted on to belt out the lyrics.  

After the discovery that saved their sanity, my parents played me all different genres of music. I took my first steps with the waltz of the Blue Danube, spoke my first word alongside the croon of Leonard Cohen, and was ushered off to kindergarten to the tune of David Bowie.

Unfortunately, as a preschooler, I still had trouble sleeping. I was too big to be bounced, so either my dad would lay in bed with me until we both inevitably drifted off (a habit that has ruined his sleep schedule to this day) or my mom would sit on the edge of my bed rubbing my back and singing until I fell asleep.

I made requests. At night I liked folk: James Taylor, Peter Paul and Mary, and Gordon Lightfoot were regulars. My mom has a beautiful voice. She would sing me hit songs, hidden gems, and her own creations. I was particularly fond of The Water is Wide, which, accompanied by my mother’s soft hand on my back, would never fail to row me delicately to sleep.

I went through an 80s pop phase in grade school. After dinner, my mom, brother, and I would hold dance parties in in our dining room. We pushed the big table to the wall and took over the hardwood floor. We grooved to Take On Me, shimmied to Tarzan Boy, and head banged to Come on Eileen. Then, my favourite was Girls Just Want to Have Fun, an ode to my roots as a fan of female power ballads.

Middle school came with a love for teenage rebellion rock. An interesting time in my music history. My angst-filled years were fueled by My Chemical Romance and my own evil insecurities. I try not to think of this time: it was painfully sad, as most middle school experiences are.

There was a light at the end of the puberty-induced tunnel, and it came in the form of five glorious teenage boys. One Direction. I often credit my sexual awakening to this group and sincerely appreciate their ability to pull me out of the depressed hole I had fallen into.

My mother got to experience the true power of One Direction at their second concert in Ottawa. Their two shows in my city were held on the first days of my last year in high school. My infatuation had considerably diminished by this point. I was older, and I had a real boyfriend, but I still dragged my poor mom into the ruthless pit of teenage obsession. (She said she had fun.) These concerts would be the end of my “Directioner” phase. They would close the door on boy bands and high school and open the door to adulthood and university.

Unshackled from the world of top pop hits, I was loose and wandering, genre-less. Slowly, I found my way back to the music that started it all, the music of my parents.

It began with Bob Dylan, my dad’s all-time favorite. I downloaded his entire discography one night and listened to his top hits, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, Like a Rolling Stone, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Dylan lead me into a whole new world of 60s and 70s rock. The Eagles. Joni Mitchell. The Band. Simon and Garfunkel. Fleetwood Mac. All artists my parents grew up listening to and played for me as a kid.

Listening to this music is my most addictive nostalgia. I listen to the songs from my childhood and am reminded of vacations, dance parties, and sleepless nights. The same thing happens when I listen to music from middle school or find a playlist from a high school party. I can relive these moments over and over again.

My taste has evolved in recent years. I am not a stickler about genre or artist as much as I was, I will listen to anything as long as it sounds good. My current obsessions are Lizzo – a rapper, The Lumineers – a folk band, and Joan Jett – a 70s rocker.

But I will always have a love for the classics.

This summer, my parents, brothers, and I took a day trip to Montreal to drop one of my brothers off at McGill for his first year. I was in charge of music for the drive. My playlist started off with a classic, Super Tramp, Goodbye Stranger. It got a “nice one” and a nod from my mom. Paul Simon followed. Kodachrome. She started tapping the steering wheel.

The noise of the car took over. My youngest brother fell asleep, the other turned to his phone. My parents and I silently enjoyed the tunes. The next song was for them.  

Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under. Shania Twain.

This one got a loud, “Whoa!” from the front seat. My mom gasped, taken back in time 21 years. I started singing along. My dad turned around with a big smile, fingers pointed at me in pride, bopping his head.

“Oh god,” my mom sighed and shook her head. “You were an exhausting baby.”


JESSICA MUNDIE (she/her) is a creative writer and journalist from Ottawa, ON. She is a graduate of Carleton University where she studied journalism, English, and drama studies. When she is not writing, she can usually be found baking or walking her dog. In January, she will begin her master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School in New York City.

“The Meaning of Hockey” by Marie-Eve Bernier

I never cared for hockey. Sure, as a Canadian (truthfully, more of a Québécoise), I was aware of hockey but failed to appreciate its beauty and never quite understood its meaning. I would continue to be oblivious about it for far too many years.

Ironically, hockey shaped some of my earliest memories. Fragments of it can be found in recollections of my grandfather, Léonce, watching Les Nordiques in the living room, or listening to overly excited commentators announcing the scores over the radio on long car rides. I watched my brother play street hockey with his friend on cold Canadian winter afternoons. I witnessed my otherwise shy uncle rave about vintage hockey cards. Not to be forgotten was my introduction to the beloved short story, “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier, which was the first time I read English Canadian literature, beginning a lifelong love of short stories. So, hockey was, in a way, always part of my life.

In those years where I was uninterested in the game, fond memories unknowingly formed around watching my brother and sister play. I was so proud of my sister whose talent stood out in this male-dominated sport.  I was yet to appreciate their games, which felt tediously long as a little girl. I can still feel the cold on my hands from the arena and the unique smell of the ice, which would often be overtaken by the pungent smell of vinegar and fries that spectators ravenously snacked on. But nothing compares to the excitement I felt  between long periods of boredom when one of my siblings’ teams would score. I timidly felt overjoyed and could not avoid the irresistible urge to join the loud cheering of the crowd, filled with proud moms, dads, and other bored siblings.

I still affectionately remember many charming characters from the arena. The hockey moms and dads who disproportionately cheered for their child and did not shy away from trash talking the young opposing team. The nice boy in the back row with oversized orthodontic headgear, who somehow always seemed to catch the puck when it flew into the crowd. The well-meaning elderly man who sold lottery tickets for charity and allowed me to purchase some unlawfully (I won a tooney twice!). And then there was ambitious Andy, who smugly held the responsibilities of self-appointed executive chief water boy, concession stand vendor, and raffle ticket salesman. He was also the unofficial mascot, the replacement Zamboni driver, and I am almost certain he also sharpened the skates. Andy’s multiple roles were comical, but through them he contributed to town spirit in a way I failed to appreciate at a young age. Andy was not a hockey player, a hockey fan, nor did he know anyone at the hockey matches. He was proudly part of the figure skating club. No one really knows why he hung out at the arena during hockey games.

The even finer details are still fresh. The weight of my siblings’ hockey bags filled with their gear, which were most likely taller and heavier than me. The sound of the skates when breaking quickly on the ice. The terrible smell of the hockey gear post games and practices that no amount of Febreze (purchased in high quantities from Costco by my mother) could improve. The satisfying sight of the Zamboni machine cleaning the ice as the driver (sometimes Andy) waved to the crowd. The long wait for my siblings to get changed after games and practices to finally go home!

As a teenager still finding my feet, I remember my father speaking highly of the women’s Olympic hockey team win of 2002. I never watched that historic match, but I heard so much of it that I get excited just thinking about it. The extraordinary leadership of Danièle Sauvageau, the unfair refereeing, the near loss but how they won with grace and dignity.

My father gave me a speech inspired by that win about time, hard work and practice: “We all have 24 hours in a day, that’s the only fair thing in this world, how will you use your time?”.

I think of those words regularly and I think of that winning match, which I have never watched, when in need of motivation.

In 2010, when I finished my university semester, I found myself living in Montréal with my brother in our parents’ townhouse. I was working as a bank teller during the weekdays, and my brother had his usual high-tech computer job that I will not attempt to explain. We would eagerly meet in the evenings where he would usually treat me to delicious meals out on the town, comedy shows, and movies at the cinema. City life was so exciting.

To connect with my brother, I half-heartedly decided to watch hockey with him and support the Habs. If anything, hockey-viewing snacks seemed so tasty! Slowly but truly, I was drawn in without realising.  

He used to say things like, “It’s just like a story, it’s good to know about their backgrounds and follow them through their success”.

My favourite players (and the only ones whose names I knew) were Subban and Halak, and, slowly  I became invested. I can still hear myself say with blind faith, “It’s impossible for them to lose, we have Halak and nothing gets passed him!” or,  “We are so lucky to have Subban on our side, we can’t lose with him!”.

Aside from learning  the players’ names and enough of the hockey rules (that I no longer recall) to get by, I was, more importantly, starting to learn about a nation’s and my province’s pride and true love. My brother also helped me appreciate Québécois hockey. It is undeniable that French Canadian hockey brings its own charm and excitement. I still giggle when I remember commentators saying “des bons gars avec des bons coeurs” when the team would do well or “ils n’ont pas de coeurs” when they would play poorly. Québécois are passionate about hockey, which is half the fun.

But what I remember most and know I will carry with me for life, is how beautifully connected I felt with the community when I watched hockey. The best part was seeing people in their matching jerseys rush out of the office early to catch the game.  Attempting to find a place with a good seat and a large screen in central Montréal, I would brave the overcrowded metro as people excitedly hurried to their hockey viewing parties. I still recall the infectious happiness that would explode when the Habs scored, reminiscent of the cheers I experienced in the arena as a child. The next day, hearing everyone at work talking about the game made me feel connected to something I had never related to before. What would once have been an eye roll turned into an, “I know, right!”.

I wish I could say that I kept up with watching hockey, but I did not.  In fact, I didn’t even finish the season as I returned to Ottawa early for university. I might have gone to the sports bar once or twice with friends to watch more games, but it was not the same. Was it because my brother was missing, the fact that the games were in English, or maybe I was just over it? I do not really know. I am ashamed to say I do not even know if the Habs won or how far they made it that season. My short-lived hockey fever was gone.

However, that is not to say that the game disappeared completely from my life. Hockey continued to find ways to reach me in many forms. For example, when “playing” floor hockey to support my roommate (I never once touched the puck and was always the first to enthusiastically volunteer to be benched). Flash forward many years, taking my British husband to a Remparts game in Québec City where I witnessed his confusion about Canada’s beloved sport.  

 “It goes so quickly!” he remarked.

To add to the confusion, the dedicated weirdo fan behind us was holding a squeaky rubber chicken and the hockey coach passionately threw his water bottle on the ice rink in a last ditch attempt to persuade the referee to side with him, which only added to my husband’s uncertainty about the game.

My young nephew joining a local small-town hockey team also brings back many fond memories.  I hope he learns the same lessons from hockey as I have, and that his siblings have as much pride watching him as I did with mine.

What surprises me the most is how much those matches I watched long ago had unknowingly inspired me. I have often looked back on them for guidance when facing struggles. What was once a meaningless game became meaningful and still is to this day.

I do not know what my hockey future looks like. I might get into another season and bond with other hockey fans. I cannot imagine myself even casually playing the game, but stranger things have happened! I hope to take my prospective children to play on outdoor ice rinks, even on afternoons that are far too cold. If life throws me an unmanageable hurdle, I can always look back on those games for inspiration. The dedication I observed in those games gone by was my main take away. Many future hockey-based moments surely await me.

What I do know is that I still think of the ice rink where my siblings played hockey, I still think of my father’s unsolicited coaching strategies and I will forever remember the lessons that hockey taught me. For me, the meaning of hockey is not being a player, or watching the games regularly, or even having a great understanding of them. It is not about keeping scores or wins. It never was and never will be about trophies. The meaning of hockey is about the memories of happy gatherings, believing in something that is greater than me, and connecting to my roots.


MARIE-EVE BERNIER is a Québécoise currently living in New Zealand. She loves playing outdoors and reading books. She works in the early years and considers babies her best friends. She has many hobbies but watching hockey isn’t one of them.

“Luna” by Sarah Bensemana

Kenya. 

From the never-ending, dry landscape rose twenty trees in my field of vision. Some were brought down by elephants, but most were left brittle and weak, dying of thirst. It had been my first day in the African Bush and the clouds carefully shielded me from the sun.

#

Friday night dinner. 

The generations sat around the table in soft, sinking chairs. My square-shaped father situated himself at the head with a bible at a thirty-degree angle from his hand. He laughed as he told vulgar stories from his childhood: the constant reprimanding of teachers and his dying need to contest elders.     

And that is when Kayla materialized: the self-deprecating part of myself that I would never truly be able to understand.

#

Zoo. 

As the sun broke free from the morning clouds, the blazing ball of fire seemingly engulfed me. The black pavement warmed my feet, through the soles of my shoes. I hear the cries of a child, a parent, a zookeeper and the gorilla.

#

Award Night.

The evening started nearly twenty minutes ago and I have not yet heard my name. So I guess this is what it is like to be average. To sit here, waiting while seemingly everyone has been called up and congratulated four hundred times. 

Kayla grew short in the past few years, but her presence was nevertheless aversive. She stared at me as she danced in a tribe-like manner. Her deafening screams filled the room, yet no one turned to look at her. 

Why is it that she was not getting any attention?

Why is it that she was looking at me like I was some sort of monster?

#

Kenya.

Kyle, our tour guide with fiery hair he hid under a hat, felt the incessant need to document everything. He insisted that we remain quiet as to not reveal our location. Luna, the lioness, slowly entered the open valley.

#

 Zoo. 

It stared back at me. The only separation between it and I was the tall, rigid glass wall. The glass wall that was tall enough to tower over my father. The glass wall that seemingly rose for miles… 

Perhaps it was not only the gorilla that was enclosed.

#

Friday Night Dinner.

I was filled with joy, surrounded by the bizarrely comforting walls of my childhood home. As soon as anybody walked through the glass door, the light browns and blood reds made it feel as though you were in nature. On the entrance wall hung endless welcome signs in a million different languages. I always found this bizarre since anyone who ever came in only spoke the same three: English, French and Hebrew. Yet, my father bought more and more. 

The walls were once made of cement, but now only glass. My transparent house left nowhere to hide. 

I often wondered if people were watching me.

#

Award Night.

It had been twenty-two minutes, and the secondary four awards were coming to a start. A boy in my class had just been called up for the Awardfor Mathematics, a subject in which he received endless amounts of recognition for minimal amounts of effort. It always came so easy to him.

Kayla grew. 

#

Kenya. 

“Animals are fascinating,” Kyle said.

“Can you fathom how lucky we are to be witnessing this?” he repeated.

“I cannot wait to sell this footage to a documentarist,” he encouraged.

I began to understand the omnipresence of racist colonialism and white peoples’ need to exploit a land and people that is not their own.

#

Award Night. 

“It is with great honour that we grant the award for Scientific Excellence to Rachel Wolf.”

#

Zoo.

I stared deep into the gorilla’s desperate eyes and felt my mother looking back at me. I slowly raised my hand to touch the cold glass. The gorilla started beating against the heavy walls of its enclosure until its hands streamed blood. It yelled and screeched until it sank down. 

Exhausted.

#

Kenya.

The tension was prominent. I felt as though its weight was both pushing down on my chest and forcing the air out of my lungs. I could not breathe. As the two lionesses surrounded the limping cub, Luna followed with silent, soft strides. Despite the deep mating calls of the male behind us, her established confidence radiated through all of us.

#

Award night. 

I ran up there trying to contain my explosive achievement. One would never be able to see it. Unless that one was Kayla.

Only Kayla can see the atoms and compounds of my body exploding and coming back together again. Only Kayla would be able to feel the chemical reactions of endorphins being released into my body. Only Kayla would be able to share this moment with me, yet I could not see her anywhere.

#

Zoo.

A wave of anger came over me. I looked at my father and he became the enemy. The enemy of the gorilla. The enemy of my mother. 

I charged at him and bit into his wrist. I watched the blood stream from his arm.

The gorilla looked back at me.

#

Award Night. 

I held my award close to my stomach like a pillow during a frightening film. 

As I made my way toward my seat, that same boy approached me. All he managed to mutter through his big mouth was that,

“My parents did not think you deserved that award.” 

All of a sudden, that award that I once held so closely, began to suffocate me. It stretched and tightened itself around my lungs like a boa constrictor.

Tighter and tighter. 

#

Kenya.  

I will never be able to understand how two animals of the same species can be programmed with completely disparate mentalities. The male cared for nothing more than establishing his dominance, destroying all of what could never be his. While Luna, covered in scars from battles she fought to protect others, was being punished for a crime that should not exist.

As the male walked toward them, Luna stood still. The sky started raining glass and in her eyes, a reflection of her executioner materialized.


SARAH BENSEMANA is an eighteen-year-old girl who has always had a passion for literature. While she has not shared her work with many people as she find her writing to be very personal, she hopes that her audience can find some comfort, intrigue and familiarity within her short story, “Luna.”

‘My Uncle, Me, and Psychosis’ by Janet Stewart

My Uncle

 

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

I’ll always remember when I was three and stepped up onto a new sidewalk that was too high for me, almost to my knees. I can still do it now, figuratively. My uncle held my hand and helped me up; my mentally ill uncle, my favourite Uncle Lloyd. He’s still holding my hand now: we shared the same genes for psychotic disorder. I didn’t quite inherit the destiny of isolation and rejection he experienced. He lived very much alone and my family never visited him.

Psychiatry had improved slightly by the time I came under its care: there were antipsychotics. I mothered my daughterhis child died a blue baby in England just after World War II, which may be what set him off in the first place. He came back to Canada without his wife, behaving strangely, painting the rooms of his family home in Rivière-du-Loup in bright pastels. I was told that it was shell shock from the war. I doubt he ever got a proper diagnosis or medication.

As my predecessor, my true family roots lie in him. My father told me, “Late at night, he used to walk the streets of a small town where he lived near the Veteran’s Hospital.” I wonder how he knew that. He worked on oil paintings at Gran’s place when I was very small, but I’ve never seen any of his works anywhere since. By the time I felt a need to learn more, Gran had died, and no one else knew much about him.

In 1989, I had my first episode of psychosis at about the same age he did, at 33. I had also just arrived back home in Montreal after working overseas. During that first episode, when my daughter was two, I talked my way into a Master of Science program: Virology and Immunology, mainly because I thought I was a genius. I didn’t tell anyone that I thought I was a genius because I believed that I was on a secret mission to come up with a cure for HIV. I felt at home at the Institut Armand-Frappier in Laval and was proud of its tradition of vaccine production and research. It was only after six months into the Master’s program that I was finally diagnosed with psychosis and medicated, and I decided to finish the degree even though I realized that I am not a genius.

I left in good standing with the publication of an original contribution. That led to enrollment in a Ph.D. program at McGill University, where I didn’t fare as well. I didn’t feel accepted there and became depressed. It ended in another episode of psychosis that put a stop to the Ph.D. in 1994. Then, I supported my daughter and myself by eking out a living as a freelance scientific writer, bogged down by the heavy medication. My love for my daughter was my reason for getting up in the morning and overcoming the curse of inertia caused by the antipsychotic medication until, in 2003, I was worn down by a third episode of psychosis struck that lasted five years.

 

2003-2008

When the third episode was building in me in the autumn of 2003, I got into an argument with my father, which I had never done before. It was over why we had never visited Uncle Lloyd, his brother, and why nobody had told me when he died. I asked where he was buried and when his birthday was, and my father didn’t even know. My mother remembered what cemetery he was buried in. So, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day during the spring of 2004, in full-blown psychosis, I went to the Field of Honour Cemetery, where a tent had been set up by the Last Post Memorial people. They looked up the number of his grave for me. R. L. Stewart was clearly marked on the cracked gravestone, with the wrong year of death. I left flowers.

His full name was Raymond Lloyd, and I never would have found his grave if my father hadn’t told me that during our argument. I must be the only family member to have visited his grave after his funeral,  although he had five brothers and two sisters with 18 kids among them. I’m probably the only kid in the family to hold his hand or to ask my grandmother what he was doing when he talked, though he was alone. The only one who would ask her when he would visit her next, the only one of his nieces and nephews to remember him with fondness. He would silently mouth words in a conversation with empty air. I remember the incredulous look on his face when he did. It was as though some arbitrary, crushing injustice was being handed to him by the person he was talking to, and pleading with, although nobody was there.

I was six or seven when he died. In the fall of 2003, I wished I could go back in time and talk to him. I felt strongly that I could get through to him even in his psychotic state and have meaningful conversationstreat him like a sensitive individual, listen to him, make him feel I’m there, find something to laugh about together.

I wrote a little piece about my recollections of him, what I would say to him if he was alive: “Life is better now for people like us.”  I sent it to the members of my immediate family.

I wasn’t aware then of the dire circumstances many people with schizophrenia live in today, nor did I foresee my own homelessness.  My copy got lost along with almost all of my other belongings during the last bout of psychosis and homelessness, but I did manage to save the handout from the Last Post Memorial with the number of his grave written on it. I can find his grave again.

I fought off treatment with antipsychotic medication for five years, even demonstrating in court that I did not constitute a danger to myself or others. One of the tenants in the slum I was living in threatened to kill me, so I moved into another slum to get away from him, making trips across the street loaded down with the few belongings I had left. And so it went when I was psychotic: escaping real or imagined threats, abandoning my possessions bit by bit, one crisis at a time, until I no longer had a place to live.

I finally hit the wall and ended up homeless in 2008. I was sent by ambulance to psychiatric emergency by the workers at a women’s shelter and finally came out of the psychosis a few weeks later.

 

2015

Now it’s autumn, about fifty-five years after stepping up onto that sidewalk with Uncle Lloyd and seven years after stepping off the psychiatric ward for the last time. No more delusions, and no more slums for me now, either. I am back among the living, with my old friends, a new career, out of poverty, misery, isolation, and mental instability.

Supposedly I have recovered, I’m often told that I’m amazing and that I inspire people, but don’t feel particularly inspired. Most of the time I hardly feel anything, I don’t feel like myself, I’ve just been hanging on. I don’t cry, I don’t laugh. I’m told I’m doing well considering. I add, “only compared to before.” I silently complete the thought: I am doing well for someone with schizophrenia. It’s as though people with schizophrenia should be content with a quality of life that would be unacceptable to most.

But I’m a success story according to the professionals, probably because I work. No matter what I tell her, my psychiatrist doesn’t seem to understand how slow and painful it is, that something is wrong, or what really keeps me goingwhich is, that I’m convinced I’ll eventually feel good, feel right, and really laugh again . . . feel like myself. 

I’ve recovered from psychosis before, that’s why I’m so sure. It took me six years to feel like myself after the episode in 1994, and this last episode was much, much worse. So, I just keep learning to function better, until I can start feeling again.

Autumn is my favourite time of year. These days, I walk in beautiful weather to the subway on my way to work. I pass the little huddle of Caribbean stores at a corner near my apartment.  I wonder what that restaurant is all aboutmostly men and some gaudy women, drinking outside on the sidewalk on Saturday nights with music spilling out. They seem to be having such a good time that they take no notice of me when I walk through their universe.  

Nelson Mandela Park: in the summer, the older men sit on the benches talking and watching the passersby. Cars pull up blaring reggae, and the few women are all dressed to the nines. I can’t imagine feeling comfortable or welcome sitting in the park, with only the odd woman there and no white people. It’s a public park and I know nothing bad would happen if I did, I just feel that there are invisible barriers that I would breach. I wonder about the story behind naming the park after Nelson Mandela. I feel that he is part of me too.

When Mandela died, in the late autumn of 2013, there were a few dried-out bunches of flowers strewn over the dedicatory plaque, a few candles, trees bare, dead leaves blown across the frozen ground. The park was abandoned and desolate.

Slums to the east and slums to the west of me.  I live amongst a few blocks of middling, trimmed hedges, mowed lawns, and working peoplemostly Asian, brown and black. I’m a member of a visible minority in this neighbourhood, and oh! a member of an invisible minority, an often reviled and hated minority. But I forget about the schizophrenia more and more.

I tap “Create Document” on my iPad, then on “Blank Document,” and bring up a blank screen entitled “Blank 3”. I love the blank page, but have no notion what Blanks 1 and 2 are! I don’t notice or remember much. There are loose ends in evidence all over, the Tupperware I didn’t put back in the cupboard after cleaning it months ago, the shards of a ceramic dish I haven’t glued back together yet, the dead DVD player I’ve been meaning to take to the recycling depotbut I’ve misplaced the address. The dust. Is it only the side effects of the antipsychotic?

I’ve been on and off antipsychotics enough times to know the difference. It’s huge. The people who rejoice in telling me that I’m doing so well on meds don’t realize that I live in a prison of fog. Antipsychotics do get rid of my delusions, but they wipe out a lot more than just psychosis, things like having some oomph and feeling alive. I’ll never cease to hate those pills. They’re a necessary evil, a witch’s spell, almost as destructive as the spell I’m under when psychotic. Added to that, five years of paranoia and delusions thoroughly fried my brain, too fried to work in science, which I was happy doing.

For seven years, I’ve been getting used to people again, no longer so put off by the demands and deceptions required in order to socialize. People seemed so petty and fake in my initial forays into the working world when I came off the street. Then reading, using computers, driving, cooking, working, even just getting a grip, all had to be re-learned.

I work on a mental health team that cares mainly for those most severely affected with schizophrenia, doing home visits. I work with people who live in isolation and misery, in slums that smell, often with cockroaches and bedbugs and filth, the only lodgings they can afford on their meagre disability pensions. I’ve been there myself, partly why I was hired. Having experienced homelessness was also considered to be a plus for this job! Times are changing.

The team’s goal is to keep our clients stable enough to get into a routine, to help them care for themselves and live in the community. I shudder at the thought of how most will end up in old age, with health and quality of life deteriorated from decades of neglect and poverty.

Claire is around 50. Many of her teeth are rotting and coming loose. She refuses to go to the dentist though it’s covered on her disability pension. “Nobody likes to go to the dentist,” I tell her. I had woken her up in the middle of the afternoon pounding on the door to her apartment. “I’ve come for our appointment to clean your place together, remember?” I say though I know that remembering appointments is the furthest thing from her mind. She goes back to bed and soon I can’t shake her awake again. She’s on the verge of being evicted because four times she’s left things on the stove that started fires. The team decided to take out the stove’s fuse and I went with Claire to buy a slow cooker that shuts off automatically.

According to my team, my work is “superb.” I get through to people that the other members of the team can’t. One, in particular, doesn’t respond to medication:  he’s delusional but he listens to me. Sometimes. He doesn’t like the team; I think he finds it intrusive. But he knows he needs people he can depend on and that his parents, whom he currently relies on, won’t live forever. That much I’ve got across to him in his more lucid moments. But he still doesn’t like the team. He wants to get laid and I’m way out of the right age range so I’m not a target. The younger women on the team feel it though.

I’m beginning to realize that I have the wrong attitude for this job. My co-workers are dedicated to making our clients’ lives the best they can be. Buried deep in me is the knowledge that I barely escaped the fate of my clients and still only just manage to take care of myself properly. don’t have much in the way of solutions for our clients, as I don’t for myself, either. “Just force yourself to do things, until they’re second nature. It may take years. You have to force and push yourself for the rest of your life, in fact: it’s a chronic illness, a disability.”

That’s what I feel like saying when I see some of them.  I also tell myself that when I get home to my own dusty, cluttered apartment that I am so careless about. But I never tell my clients that they need to push themselves, it’s not the recommended approach. Most of them aren’t ready, according to the recovery model of peer support. Will they ever be ready? I’m supposed to be the bright light of recovery and hope, an inspiration. Talk of the miracle of recovery, perhaps, when I really don’t believe in miracles. Give hope. Be a role model. I don’t think my clients would want the kind of life I lead now.

The suffocating silence that surrounds schizophrenia stifles me too. My friends don’t ask me what I did during those five years of delusions, and they change the subject when I bring up my present challenges, though I listen to all the details of their ailments. Nobody sent me flowers when I finally ended up in the psychiatric ward, no Get Well cards, and only my daughter visited me there. People had given up on me, had stopped contacting me, and had moved on during the five years I was psychotic. I didn’t exist for them anymore.

“Now you’re doing great, you’re okay now,” a friend said, as though all those traumatic experiences don’t take a toll.

There’s too much, it’s too big for me: five years of psychosis, the medication change that caused the episode (a medical error), homelessness, emptiness: no connection, no drive, no motivation, no direction, no feelings, just groping in the dark for so many years, no laughter, no joy, no pleasure. Not even any tears. All these thoughts and feelings crowd together, I want to get them all out, but they leave me paralyzed, and I can’t find the words to answer him. I am also responsible for the silence that I hate so much.

Where to begin? In the full knowledge that the people around me don’t want to hear or think about it. Instead, “You’re rocking!” a friend said when I got the job on the mental health team. But when I told her I never feel like doing anything, that I have to force myself to do everything, something it’s hard to admit to because I feel so guilty and ashamed about it, she quickly changed the subject. Friends only want to hear about the successes. “It’s too hard to hear about how much you’ve been suffering,” she finally told me one day. Another friend told me, “Just don’t talk to me about mental illness.” A very good friend.

Uncle Lloyd was even more hidden behind, what I’ve come to consider, a wall of fascist silence. It has denied us our identities to the point that I am probably the only person alive who ever thinks about him. As a family, we learned nothing from the way he lived and died. He was erased by the silence. So far, I haven’t broken through the walls around my own schizophrenia. I’m waiting for the right opportunities, the right moments, the right words, the right audience. So I write. I’m starting by writing this. I hope that someday we’ll all know what to say and how to say it.

 


JANET STEWART works in the areas of mental health research, teaching, and care and in scientific writing.

Copyright © 2020 by Janet Stewart. All rights reserved.

 

‘The city and oneself: fragments about residing temporarily in Montreal’ by Andrea Reed-Leal

The City and Oneself.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Today, May 3rd, the weather is splendid. Seated on a bench at Parc la Fontaine, I observe people picnicking with friends and family, jogging or walking their dogs. The sky is covered in clouds and we are all still wearing jackets. For a Montrealer, this is a splendid day to be outside. The artificial lake in front of me holds barely any water. The winter froze (almost) everything. Some trees around me start to pop light green dots in their branches; the park itself remains entirely naked. Although not perceived aloud, I can hear the excitement of the city (the real sounds of the urban society, ultimately more poetic than the sound of the wind). Well-liked and popular though it is, this city encompasses great contradictions. But which city does not? Montreal is a city of the multiple: language is fluid and accents abound; diversity is desirable. “Where are you from?” becomes a common line to start a conversation. Montreal, a city of merchants and bankers and, also, of beauty, art, and pleasures.

 

The city is not just an entity—closed, limited, static or invariable; on the contrary, a city is a fluid phenomenon, actively changing through time. A philosophy of the city, proposed by Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and others, resolved questions about the importance of the space in the making of communities. Relations between society and the space mold the experience of this alive space. The city changes alongside its society—it is shaped by the movement of peoples and their encounters. A city produces knowledge and continually mirrors the being of its society. Social relations determine the essence of a city, while state and economic powers simultaneously maintain the (dis)order of a city. As Henri Lefebvre wrote, “The city is a mediation among mediators.” How long does someone need to be in the city to become part of it?

 

The resident, as the name defines it, lives in the city. The resident possesses a fragmented space of the city from where she or he can depart and come back to (house, apartment, or room). The migration status limits the time of the resident in the country. If I become something else/someone new—because of the social interactions and intimate mirrorings with a particular city—, the state limits the amount of time I am allowed to be this. Such is the power of states and societies.

 

There is a radical distinction between an inhabitant and a tourist. The temporal resident, however, stands in the borderline between the two. Contrary to someone simply passing by—seduced by the industry of tourism—a temporal resident notices subtle changes in the space through time, because, although he or she still is a foreigner, everything is new. Slowly, she or he becomes accustomed to the city’s specificities that one moment before had produced excitement. Senses are wide open—as a tourist who visits a city for the first time and can only see the space as an exotic object. The temporal resident, however, also perceives the intimate incidents of the city—the freedom in walking alone in the streets, the hours of light changing every single day, the silent irritation caused by a sudden snowstorm or the fact that no one will say “bless you” after a sneeze. The tourist is an isolated being in a city perpetually moving. Whereas, even for brief moments, a temporal resident becomes a part of the wheel of daily life. Tourists observe life as outsiders, as an anthropologist studying a community or as a spectator in a theater. A society produces and recreates culture and the aesthetics of the space.

 

Certainly, the tourist plays an important role in the imagining of the city and on the experience of it. But, what is it? That is a different story. What the tourist sees when he or she visits a city differs radically from the experience of the resident.

 

If the city mirrors the group (or groups) pertaining to a certain historical and social moment, the temporal resident—who participates in the wheel of daily life with actions, decisions, codes, and conducts, shapes the city as an insider. The reality affects the individual: everything, for instance, odors, sounds of voices, errands, sensations of excitement and boredom, mold the experience of being in a place. Somehow, this “reality” defines the temporal resident—who learns to collect instants in memories because he or she understands that all experiences will be soon (or are already) lost. Nothing, then, is more important than the sensations a place gives to you. Only through time, the temporal inhabitant creates attachments to his or her surroundings: some faces become known, temporal friendships emerge, the language transmutes into something less “foreign.” And, suddenly, the resident recognizes himself or herself in the (unknown) other. The attachment resides in how I abruptly feel for the Other: I understand something of the man sited next to me reading Peter Mendelsund or of the lonely woman peeling an orange from afar.

 

Societies share an understanding of how to manage, approach and shape their spaces. Therefore, in the public space, the essence of cohabitation (how to treat each other) references such agreements.

 

To know the habits, the rituals, and the way of life one must spend time observing the continuities and discontinuities of the city. Change and movement constantly reimagine the space. A philosophy of the city recognizes the transitions, disappearances, obstacles, and internal conflicts conceiving the social space. Reflections on the transformation of the city emphasize articulations of being in the city. What am I in this city? How have I changed (because of it)?

 

For a temporal resident, it is acceptable not to treat the city as an object of exploration (although, as a “new” space, in the beginning, it is unavoidable). There is time to discover (and be discovered). The temporal resident appropriates the city by letting it appear by necessity, just as it happens to the permanent inhabitant. Daily life affairs provide excuses to visit new neighborhoods. By giving oneself to everyday life—letting it influence you, while, simultaneously inscribing the space with your own individual history—the resident eventually learns to move around the space. In other words, through daily life, he or she establishes a sense of belonging to that community.

 

For a resident, the city displays both joy and sorrow, abundance and poverty. Experiences of daily life include those affairs that might not be so desirable but are, nonetheless, unavoidable. That is, temporal residents, share the politics of being a citizen—making lines to pay taxes, paying visits to hospitals, and opening bank accounts—. From a perspective of daily life, traffic, city constructions, and work become annoyances—dealings which, commonly, invite boredom, confusion, and dissatisfaction. To understand a place is to see its aesthetics of decline as well.

 

The city is, as Henri Lefebvre argues, “an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than to a simple material product.”

 

Somehow, after some months, I notice the changes in odors. The winter is over, all living things come back (including aspects of myself). Ants make geometrical figures in the pavement. A dead squirrel lies next to the speeding bicycles crossing the park. Owners walk their dogs, taking their time. I notice the smells of new life. My eyes cry and my nose sneezes constantly. The air I breathe changes. I get a terrible (once in a lifetime) sinusitis. I cannot breathe. My eyes continue to cry. I am on antibiotics. I cannot be out (again). Being in this city becomes exhausting.

 

To feel comfortable in a space, I must first inhabit it. After a few months in the apartment, I still felt like a foreigner leaving soon. I transformed the space forme, and suddenly my (temporal) home became familiar. Temporality allows you to modify, in turn, your life according to space. The public pool near my home became a known space after many visits. On a sunny but cold afternoon of February, I swam for an hour, expiring through my nose and inspiring through my mouth (changing the normal structure of breathing). I could listen clearly to the breath beneath the water and the rhythm of this (new) daily life. As I stopped in the borderline to rest, I felt the heat on my skin. To visit this pool reminds me of all the other pools I have visited in other cities: the blue color of the floors, the warm atmosphere, the movement of the water. It is possible, I thought, to link experiences elsewhere to this particular moment.

Learning to be in a new city requires to let your senses identify and understand the surroundings. It is required first, and foremost, to learn how to move around: Is it safe to walk to the pool at night? Is the bus faster than the metro?

 

If the city (buildings, streets, transportation, businesses, universities, etc.) reflects its social interactions—that is, the unconscious multiple daily relations between millions of people, then all public displays tell something about the soul (thoughts, aims, identity) of its society. Festivals, museum exhibitions, and public spaces collect the “essence” of the people. I am amazed by all the experimental art taking place in theatres, galleries, and museums. The city (and, therefore, the people) encourages the exploration of new sensations almost all the time. Artists confidently do so. There is a degree of charm and pride in doing (being) something outside the conventional. All this combined provokes something very odd in me: What am I allowed to do (be) here? May I liberate what I have had to hide all this time? What does this freedom mean?

 

Roland Barthes accompanies me in the library. With him by my side, I notice the particular light of this room: bright white illuminating the walls and shades of yellow and blue coming from the shelves. It is difficult to read Barthes in French, but I try it anyway because I am in a French-speaking city and I desperately want to be like them. I question if, after all this time, I have not become somehow like them and if the borders between “them” and “me” have disappeared. After all, how many people experience the city temporarily just like me?

Hundreds of individuals surround me either reading, writing, or exploring the bookshelves. The couches and tables are comfortable. This is a peaceful space. I sit here for hours until the light of the day blurs out. Today the sun rose at 5:15. The light comes through the green curtain of my bedroom and wakes me. The changing in the space affects me in levels that go beyond the imagined. More hours of light mean more outdoor activities—and more energy in my body and mind.

 

In the metro, quite full of young people, a young woman with earphones stands next to me. I can hear her Spanish audiobook (she is probably a student here). I get off the train at the next stop. I cannot stand being myself just a student living temporarily in Montreal. I started walking in the deserted neighborhood. Construction invades the streets.  I walk until, forty-five minutes later, I arrive home (quite angry). Time has allowed me to be a Montrealer, and soon I will have to become something else. The nostalgia of leaving defines the experience of residing temporarily. I have become attached to this space. How can I accept change again? Thinking about the possibility of never coming back stimulates my melancholia. I constantly remind myself, “you are here”, “remember this.” Already, however, memories disappear. I cannot picture the city filled with snow anymore. I see only tulips on the streets.

 


ANDREA REAL-LEAL is a graduate student of history at McGill University. In 2017, she published her first book El Río que no vemos. Crónicas de Tizapán (CDMX: ITAM, 2017). She has also published essays, book reviews, and short stories, in Opción, Luvina, Acentos Review, and Punto en Línea. Her current research project focuses on early medieval female involvement in the production and circulation of manuscripts.

Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Real-Leal. All rights reserved.

 

‘Consequences’ by Dalia Gesser

Consequences

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

When we live our lives on the edge, with no regard for how we conduct ourselves or how we treat our mates, it’s no surprise that consequences usually follow. I picked up an inebriated man in my cab, late one evening, outside a local bar. He needed to get home or maybe he just ran out of drinking money and called it ‘a night’. It’s all too common for the intoxicated ones, having just imbibed in a ‘bottle of courage’, to rant on about some ridiculous situation they became embroiled in, which of course they’re never at fault.           This forty something-year-old was no different. Having no filter, he began spewing his drunken opinions during the short drive to his residence. I was all too familiar with this behavior and how easily an innocent comment could set them off, so I tried to keep the conversation light. This gentleman, however, most probably due to his uninhibited state, felt the need to share the ongoing conflict he was having with his spouse.

“Oh my wife doesn’t care much for my drinking,” he confided in me.

“Why is that?” I asked sarcastically, trying to humour him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You’d think she’d be used to it by now.”

“Maybe she hopes you’ll change,” I said more sincerely.

“She’s always trying to change me,” he said complaining.

“We all have room for improvement,” I said.

“When she met me, she knew that I like to drink and she did too,” he said trying to defend himself.

“Well, people don’t always stay the same, especially as we get older,” I said.

“You got that right,” he said, a bit upset. “If she doesn’t drink, the least she could do is not bug me about what I like to do.”

“Well maybe she wants the best for you and doesn’t want to see you have long term health problems,” I said.

“I know, but if I don’t care she shouldn’t either.”

“Easier said than done.”

“True.”

Just as I pulled up to the man’s home, we both witnessed someone throwing clothes out of an upstairs window. We watched as the smaller items floated down gracefully while the larger ones landed on the lawn with a thud.

“This doesn’t look good,” the man commented.

“I guess not.” I replied. “Am I to assume that’s your wife tossing out your clothes?”

“Ya,” he said in shock.

This situation was so cliché. I could easily imagine, without meeting her, the script leading up to this scene. The numerous comments and threats she made to him about his drinking or spending money or, more likely, both, judging by the neighbourhood where they lived. Then there were his endless promises to change, which never amounted to anything concrete, only leading to escalating disappointment. The numerous frustrated rounds, voices raised, before he would leave the house in a huff. He would always return ‘three sheets to the wind’ after the bar closed at 2:00 a.m.

Tonight, after their argument, he took off to the bar as usual, but this time her anger brewed. This time, after reaching her limit, she made the decision not to continue on the same path with this man who was incapable of modifying his habits. After a few hours of smoking many cigarettes, pacing around the house, maybe speaking to a girlfriend which included many tears, she came to terms that change was overdue. She brainstormed, possibly with her girlfriend, decided on the best plan, mustered up the courage and carried it through. Good for her.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said as more garments filled the yard.

Yes, he was that clueless.

“Lori!” he called up to her.

Lori stared down at him as he craned his head out of the open cab window but said nothing. At this point what could he possibly say? As drunk as he was, he seemed to understand at least that much. Her action spoke volumes. She popped her head back inside then after a few seconds and resumed her mission, more garments came tumbling downwards.

“I never thought she’d go and do this!” the guy exclaimed.

Was this his best defense?

“Well I guess she had enough,” I said stating the obvious.

As the reality of his wife’s actions sank in, a look of guilt spread across his face. The man got out of the cab, walked over to the clothes spread across the front yard, and began picking them up with a saddened expression. He was clearly at a loss as to how to deal with this pathetic situation.

“Lori, Lori,” this upstanding citizen called up to the second floor again.

It was all to no avail. Lori ignored his pleas.

“Where else can I take you,” I asked the distraught man trying to make him understand that staying here was not an option.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a few months later, I was requested by dispatch to drive a man home. It was difficult to detect his age, due to his smoker’s complexion and slightly burned-out appearance. This guy was the last of my intoxicated fares so by the time we arrived at his home it was close to 3:00 a.m. When I stopped the cab in front of the house with the porch lights on, I noticed a piece of paper posted to the front door. Next to the door with the handwritten message was stacked a stereo, a briefcase, a few boxes, an ugly lamp, a leather jacket, and a few other possessions. Scattered across the lawn was an array of clothes. My passenger let out a gasp.

“I can’t believe she left my jacket in full view! Someone could have stolen it.”

Of all his possessions this undoubtedly was one of his favourites. He took a couple of minutes to study his state of affairs. “This is unbelievable!”

The now ex-girlfriend found an unmistakable way of making her point. I felt the need to bring the posted message to his attention, as I questioned how cognizant he was with drunkenness now compounded in shock.

“She left you a note,” I said.

He got out of the cab and pulled the paper off the door. He glanced back at me and shrugged.

“How long have you been together?” I couldn’t help but ask loudly.

“Not long,” he paused, “a few months.”

He stood silently, assessing the disaster zone, then took out his cell phone from his pocket. Perhaps he was expecting to get the boot, not knowing exactly how or when it would happen. I waited patiently then, after a couple of minutes, made an arm gesture signaling him over to the cab.

“What are we doing here?” I called to him wanting to get on with my shift.

“Just a sec,” he held up his index finger.

He paced back and forth over the lawn, picking up his clothes while conversing with someone on his cell. “Okay,” he said then hung up.

He walked over to the driver’s window and paid me.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Ya,” he answered. “Just like last time, a buddy’s coming over to get me.”

 


DALIA GESSER, a theatre arts/educator and writer, has been running theatre arts programs for children and seniors, since 1998, funded mainly by grants from the Ontario Arts Council. She incorporates storytelling in all her theatre arts programs as everyone has interesting stories to tell. Some of her non-fiction stories have been published in an anthology book series titled ‘Conscious Women’, four in the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series and four stories in ‘Kingston Life Magazine’.

Copyright © 2019 by Dalia Gesser. All rights reserved.

 

‘On You’ by Charlie Evans

On You.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

It was a long drive back from the cottage.

We awoke hungover in an overcrowded cottage by a lake lacking in food, coffee and cigarettes. Most of us were coming down from drugs, apart from me. But I had awoken in a mood, so I was just about as upbeat and pleasant as the rest. You were one of the most upbeat, something I think you were doing for the benefit of me. You were always good at cheering me up, even when I didn’t want it.

Someone had started playing music, beginning with an Ed Sheeran song – one of the more romantic ones. I remember you groaning because it was loud, and it had woken us up much earlier than we desired. I mumbled something incoherent into my pillow and you laughed, pulling me in closer to you and kissing the top of my head. Eventually we were dragged out of bed by your friends, but you whispered to me that you wished we could’ve stayed there together all day.

We all lingered too long, no one awake enough to begin the long drive back to our respective towns. Someone had braved the roads and driven 20 minutes to buy a pack of smokes for us all to share. You gave me two instead of one. A few people ended up in tears before it even reached noon, me being one of them. It was a bad day. You stood with me on the deck and held my hand, kissing me when no one was looking.

We weren’t together, and all night your friends had asked me why. I began to run out of reasons because, in part, we didn’t know ourselves. It had to do with distance and commitment issues and a big hesitance for either of us to acknowledge that it could possibly be something more than just sex. We’d been sleeping together on and off for a long time by that point, but we treated it as if it wasn’t a big deal. Because it wasn’t, we told ourselves. We’d never put a label on it, always keeping it casual because we didn’t want to rush into things and make them fall to ruin.

The night before, as we’d sat around the fire, I had seen your eyes on me. One of your friends couldn’t help but point it out. You blew it off as if it were nothing but gave me a look. A look I knew well at that point: a look meant just for me. The one that kept your words in when you, with your eyes, tried to tell me how you felt.

You made sure we stopped on the drive back, telling your friends that I was a nightmare without coffee—a hard fact. You let me order first at the Walmart McDonald’s, saying I needed it more than you did. I hushed you and told you to order your burger.

At some point during the drive, you reached across the backseat of the car and grabbed my hand, intertwining our fingers and giving me a squeeze. You didn’t let go for at least an hour.

I looked at you and I finally knew. I let myself acknowledge the truth that I’d tried to bury for God knows how long.

I felt it.

That feeling where you realize that the person in front of you is so incredible. The feeling when you know you could sit and listen to the person ramble on for hours and never be bored. When you know that sitting in silence with them is the best thing you’ve known. That they’re everything. All you need, all you want, all you could ever possibly see that point in life.

I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t.

You looked at me when I was staring at you, reached out and touched my cheek. “What?” you whispered.

I shook my head at you. I didn’t know how to find the words. I still don’t.

“Nothing,” I whispered back.

You can always tell when I lie. You leaned across the car and kissed me, a bit deeper than you normally did in front of people. Your two friends in the front seats made a comment, but you kissed me again and then turned back to look out the window, holding my hand the whole way home. I stared out my own window, trying to think of the sky instead of the colour of your eyes.

We dropped me off first, back in Toronto. You got out of the car with me and pulled me into a hug, holding me tight, telling me that you’d see me next weekend for our friend’s wedding. The wedding that I didn’t know then would cause the end of us – even if it turned out to be for the best. The end of everything. The sex, the phone calls, the whispered conversations under the cover of stars, the friendship.

Losing the friendship just about caused me to lose myself. At least for a little while.

But we didn’t know that yet.

All I knew was the feeling I had felt in that back seat, and all you knew? I still don’t know. I may never know. But that’s okay.

Because for one afternoon, one long car ride back from the cottage, I knew.

And you didn’t.

 


CHARLIE EVANS: I am currently in my second year of an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree at Sheridan College in Creative Writing and Publishing. I enjoy writing both creative non-fiction and fiction, typically writing short stories as well as longer pieces. I am looking to begin publishing my work both online and in print in a more official capacity.

Copyright © 2019 by Charlie Evans. All rights reserved.

 

‘The Accident’ by Ilona Martonfi

The Accident.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

“A car hit my little sister,” I said to the nun in my broken English, my siblings and I attended St. Malachy School on Clanranald Avenue.

Halloween night 1955: a Volkswagen Beetle hit nine-year-old Erika on Decarie Boulevard, corner Monkland Avenue. Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough.

One year earlier, we had immigrated to Montreal. War refugees from Budapest, a mother and a father, four daughters and one son. Ages seven to fourteen.

After school, I was scoring orange peels in father’s pastry shop when I saw my seven-year-old brother József. He ran into the store to tell my parents about the accident. I ran outside with father. We found my sister lying unconscious between two parked cars.

Apu, my father, picked up his child. Sobbing, he carried Erika into his shop and laid her down on the bare floor. A Magyar Cukrászda.Scuffed wide plank oak floors, between two glass counters that were filled with chocolates and fresh Hungarian cakes and pastries.

My sister lay with her eyes closed. Father crouched beside her on his knees, calling her name, “Erika. Erika.”

My mother stood by the counter, very still. I prayed the Our Father. The Hail Mary. Repeatedly, I said them. Then Erika threw up. It was dark red. I thought she would die. I prayed louder. To our relief, the red colour was from beets. Sliced cékla my eldest sister Erna had cooked.

On Decarie we rented an apartment across the street from the store. My sister Erna had sent her younger siblings with the alarm clock. “Tell mother to wind it so we will not be late for school.”

The driver of the car, who hit my sister, cried as hard as my father did. “I have four children and no car insurance,”he blurted out between uncontrollable sobs.

Józsefre calls, “Father wanted to cut the guy’s head off when he saw Erika vomiting red. ‘If she dies your head comes off!’he told the driver. She flew through the air and landed on the hood of a car. I was holding her hand. This guy came through the red light. All I remember, she was hit. She was on the wrong side. Both of us should have been hit. It happened in the dark. We all ate beets for supper.”

An ambulance took my sister to the Children’s Hospital. She came home the same night. She suffered a concussion and was dizzy for several days. Erika was allowed to sleep with my parents in their double bed. Missed many weeks of school.

“I don’t celebrate Halloween. Your sister had the accident,” mother said, many years later.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is an editor, poet, curator, advocate and activist. Author of four poetry books, the most recent Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019). Forthcoming, The Tempest (Inanna, 2021). Writes in journals, anthologies, and five chapbooks. Her poem “Dachau on a Rainy Day” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. Artistic director of Visual Arts Centre Reading Series and Argo Bookshop Reading Series. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘Ghosts of South London’ by Catherine Watson

South London

Illustration by Andres Garzon

In my grandmother’s garden there was a stunted, knuckled tree near a ramshackle bomb shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron curved over a shallow hole. My grandmother lived in an Edwardian terrace house in a dull London suburb: the house had only four rooms, one front and one back on two floors.  My father was the oldest child and the oldest son – there were three children – and he was the one with the most responsibility and the deepest awareness of how much hope and happiness had been destroyed.  His burden of suffering was part of my childhood: it wasn’t the only way I knew him, but it did form the kernel of my understanding of un-rightable wrong.  Whatever cruelty, violence, fear or disappointment my father had known in his early years lay deep inside him and was never softened or set aside.

As we approached my grandmother’s house, a grimness settled on my father like a deadening blow.  He was someone who could shut off feeling in an instant; when he was really tense or anxious the side of his nose would twitch and the rims of his eyes would turn red.

My mother was scornful of my father’s family. She picked up pieces of family lore and turned them into humourless fun, like calling the house “7GR” – for 7 Guildford Road – which was how my grandfather headed his letters to my father. “7 GR, ugh!” she would say when a visit was planned, and we all knew it would be very unpleasant.  Her reasons were unexplained.

This is the story of what I learned about my father’s family at different ages and what my father’s family meant to me.

 

My father was an internal revenue inspector.  At the height of the Depression he studied by correspondence and sat the open civil service exams.  He passed second in the country, entering the British middle-middle class at a single stroke.  He left school at sixteen and had previously worked as a clerk.  Both my parents were from the same area of London, the northern part of Croydon, but my mother’s family was more stable than my father’s. They helped my father when he was struggling to escape poverty.  My parents married after my father completed two years’ probation with the civil service.

I was born in the spring of 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.  (I am now seventy-four.)  I was born outside London as my father worked in Gloucester, about ninety-five miles to the west.  My family traveled up to London periodically to see both sets of grandparents, although I doubt we went often as almost no one had a car.  For me, as a young child, post-war London was an almost mythical land: escalators in the Underground tunneling deep into the earth, bomb sites filled with weeds and rubble, blown-out buildings standing stark against the sky.  In the neighbourhoods where my grandparents lived, houses were older and closer together; they let in less light.

My family moved back into London in 1950, when I was five-and-a-half.  After the move, we also lived in Croydon – in South Croydon, the other side of town.  My first complete memories are from around that time, possibly the year before; I have fragments of memory from a couple of years earlier.  My first memories are still split between those that have colour, movement, cheerfulness (from my everyday life) and those that are darker and stranger (memories of my grandparents, and especially my father’s childhood home).

We continued to visit my grandmother (my father’s mother) almost until she died in 1969.

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I can recall my grandmother’s house almost exactly.  The front room, called the parlour, was kept for special occasions and I can remember going in there only to look.  There was an upright piano and a short, flat sofa with thin, sausage-shaped arms.  The sofa was upholstered in carpet-like material and the arms were secured at the ends with disks of carved wood.  In front of the window was a table with a large china pot.  The curtains were yellow net, machine-made.

Family visits took place in the back room – was it called the breakfast room?  I can’t remember now what my grandmother called it.  It was there that we sat at a long wooden table and ate bread and butter and small, hard-iced cakes bought at the local corner store.  My brother and I drank what the English call squash, meaning concentrated orangeade diluted with tap water, and the adults drank tea out of stained china cups.  There was a hanging gas lamp over the table lit from a tiny pilot light that flared when you pulled a string.

The kitchen was called the scullery.  This was a sort of annex and had a deep stone sink, a gas stove and a big cylindrical contraption used for laundry called a copper.  The outside lav was reached by a short path through the garden and had a flimsy door made out of wooden slats.

The only running water was in the kitchen.  There was no electric light because no one had had the money to put it in, not grandfather and not the landlord as there was rent control on smaller houses that had been rented for a long time.  My grandmother had lived there since 1915: she stayed partly because of poverty but also because she had an inherited blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and could not live independently anywhere else.  The condition was progressive and, by the time I knew her, she could only distinguish light from dark.  She wore the round, white-framed dark glasses of the blind.

One person is missing from the picture I have of my grandmother’s house – my grandfather.  He didn’t die until I was seven and so must have been present at family teas, but I have no recollection of him there.  I have one clear image of him, probably taken from a photograph: he was stocky and had white hair.  I have another, indistinct memory of the one thick, raised boot he wore.  He had one normal boot, flat to the ground, and another which dragged slightly and made him hobble; this marked him as a veteran of World War I.

The survivors of WWI were still around at that time.  Some sold newspapers on the street.  They were crippled, abandoned men who sat vacantly in parks, resigned and faceless in the weak English sun.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Harold, was of this type.  He wore the same boot as my grandfather and occasionally came to tea. My grandfather was more outgoing than my uncle, but his sociability had a disturbing edge.  Once, during a visit to our house, he said to my mother, “You’re looking pasty, Margaret,” and this upset her greatly. There was an aura about him that couldn’t be reconciled: he was neither normal nor abnormal, neither shunned nor accepted as a member of the group.

I don’t think anyone was upset when my grandfather died. Sometime afterwards, my mother told me, “Your grandfather died of prostate cancer,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

As a young child, I believed his spirit lived in my grandmother’s bare, wasted garden.  I pictured him living underneath the rough iron roof of the bomb shelter, which I then believed was from his war.  I know now it was from the Second World War, the war my parents lived through and which my older brother had some memories of.  It was an Anderson shelter, assembled at home.

My brother had his own ideas about my grandfather’s last resting place.  After my grandfather died, my brother told me, “Grandpa’s buried under that tree,” meaning the tree in my grandmother’s garden.  My brother is called Robert.  He is almost three years older than I am and can’t have believed himself what he said.  (He would have been at least ten.)  I half-believed it, I think because there was a logic to it:  my grandfather never quite died, not for my parents and not for any of us.

I can’t remember ever seeing that tree in leaf; it was always bare, twisted, like the land you see around the trenches in WWI photos.  I remember Robert said, “If you plant trees upside down they grow with their roots in the air,” and I believed that too.  I knew he was referring specifically to that tree.

When I was eight or nine, I went through a religious phase – we said prayers and sang hymns at school – and I said to my father, “I think we should forgive Grandpa now that he’s dead.”  My mother came and told me my father was very upset I’d said that.  I knew I’d done something wrong.

At the time of our family visits, my father was secure.  He had been working in the civil service for more than a dozen years and had been married to my mother for almost as long.  He had two children of his own, whom he loved.  But I think he was frightened of his father.  My earliest memory of my father, and my first clear memory, is of him coming to pick up Robert and me at another house.  My mother was in the hospital, but coming home, and we’d been sent to stay with another family.  We’d got into some trouble with the other kids, but Robert and I hadn’t been punished because we were guests.  The two of us were waiting at the gate when my father appeared at the top of a slight rise.  I saw him before he saw us, and I remember he looked bereft and alone.  It was as if he’d forgotten all about us, forgotten he had anyone to care for, or who cared about him.  I knew then I was stronger and more self-confident than he was.  I was five.  He was forty-one.

By my late teens, and because I wanted to learn about my own history, I knew most of what I know now about my father’s family. My grandfather was a sergeant in World War I.  He volunteered at the beginning of the war.  He survived but with an untreated shrapnel wound that caused him to spend the year of 1918-19 as a prisoner of war in Russia.  After he got back and got fixed up, he couldn’t get a job anywhere and he didn’t lie down under life’s injustice. He vented his anger on my grandmother and my Aunt Helen, the youngest child and only girl.  He used to say to my father, “I can’t get you, so I’ll take it out on them,” and my father would flee the house.  I heard this from my mother, never from my father.

My father was born in 1909.  He was four years older than his younger brother, seven years older than his sister.  When my grandfather returned to the family, my father was ten, possibly older, making him a more difficult target for my grandfather’s aggression.  This my father understood.  I remember my mother telling me, à propos of nothing very much, “Your father believes he escaped because his father was away in the war.  By the time he came back, your father was big enough to fight back.  That’s why he left him alone.”

My father was the one successful child.  His younger brother worked as a supervisor-mechanic with the Outer London bus service – a steady job but nothing to be proud of in my parents’ view.  My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, worked as a bank teller until her mid-thirties, when she was admitted for treatment in a psychiatric hospital.  I was six at the time, possibly just seven.  She was hospitalized for eight years and died of a codeine overdose about two years after her discharge.  I don’t think anyone knew if her death was a suicide.  I was sixteen.

My parents connected my aunt’s illness to my grandfather’s abusive treatment of her, but they could never talk openly about what my grandfather had done.  After my aunt died, my mother told me, “Auntie Helen used to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room,” and I knew my mother meant more than she said.  At another time, my mother told me, “Your father found her another place to stay.  She rented a room with another family, at nineteen, once she was working.  But it was too late for her.  She used to eat and eat and eat.”  When my mother spoke about my aunt, she almost always called her “Helen” in a tone of quiet distaste.  It was rarely “your aunt,” never “your father’s sister,” certainly not “my sister-in-law.” My father hardly talked about her at all.

It’s clear to me now that my father authorized my aunt’s hospitalization (although she was a voluntary patient).  After her discharge, my mother told me that my aunt had been arrested for shoplifting and psychiatric treatment was an alternative to being charged in court.  My mother added, “The police came to our door at six in the morning.”  My mother didn’t need to tell me that; I always knew that my aunt had done something irrevocable and bad.

After he retired, my father began to write his autobiography – his early life in fictional form.  He was a good writer and I learnt to write from him, from his letters; I learned to put on paper what was in my mind.  When he was younger, my father had written plays and some short stories, and the theme was always the same:  his uncertain sense of belonging in the middle-class world.  His novel was to be more personal and direct, staying close to his memories of childhood.  My mother typed up the first chapter and sent it to me in Canada.  I was by then married, which for my parents meant that I was a full adult.

The chapter was devastating in its honesty.  It describes how my father and his younger brother used to hang out in a park outside the family home – a place where they knew they would be safe.  The boys talk, they plan, they spot pretty girls, and it was all so unlike my father. My father read books.  He went to work every day in a suit.  He was the decision-maker; his word was usually final, and as far as I knew, he didn’t stray.  But there was something else I didn’t know about him, or hadn’t seen laid out in the clear light of day:  in the consciousness of the main character is an alien presence, a living force which threatens to destroy.

The young man’s father never appears in the novel, and he never acts nor speaks.  But when the young man thinks of returning home, he anticipates a clash over some pointless, nameless issue, and it is then that his father takes on flesh and blood in the young man’s mind.  Only the father knows the reason for the clash and assumes that he is in the right.  Seeing that he must fight, and not knowing why or to what end, the young man starts to shake uncontrollably.  He is humiliated in advance because he knows he is weak.

My father never finished his novel.  My mother said, “It’s therapy for him.”  In the chapter I read the young man calls his father “the old devil.”

Both of my parents died in 1987, my mother six months before my father.  They outlived my grandmother by less than twenty years.  My grandmother died at eighty-nine and lived in the same house until two years before her death.  My parents died in their seventies.

After my mother died, when my father was in the hospital, I stayed alone in my parents’ house.  I found old letters and papers scattered in almost every room. Two of the letters were from my grandmother and my aunt to my father, written following one of my grandfather’s violent attacks.  My father was then married to my mother and living away from home.  The letters were passionate, copious cris de coeur describing headaches, sickness, despair. The two women wrote as if my father was their only hope on earth.  My grandmother’s letter ended with remembrances to my mother, and then, “God bless her sweet face” – in an appeal to a still higher source of help.

There was another letter from my father to my grandmother announcing my birth.  His letter ended, “Here’s dibs for the week,” referring to the weekly money he sent to keep her afloat.

After my father died, I found fragments of his diary, scribbled pencil entries in a hard-cover notebook, written first on scrap paper and then transcribed.  “I had too much responsibility forced on me as a child,” my father wrote, as if his chances for happiness ended there.  Even his handwriting betrays him: cramped, spidery, f’s, h’s and l’s curled in the old-fashioned way, other letters faint and broken, the spaces too large between each word.  It’s the writing of a man who fears judgment at every turn.  My brother’s comment on my father’s private writings was that it was like seeing the other side of the moon.

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When my parents left out those old papers, what did they want me to find?  What had they been looking for?  I don’t think they were looking for any sort of justification for themselves or their lives. They wanted to bring back who they had been, what they’d lived for.  They wanted closeness to their past.  Three decades after their deaths, what am I looking for?  I think some sense of how much I am still like them, how far their lives are repeated in mine.

 


CATHERINE WATSON taught sociology for ten years in Montreal and outside Quebec and has worked as a survey interviewer in Montreal.  She has published poetry and prose in Montreal Serai.  She is presently a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.

Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.

‘The Fringes’ by Vera Oleynikova

The FringesIllustration by Andres Garzon

 

In 2010, I moved into a place that nobody in their right mind would want to live in—a second-story walk-up in a crumbling building on one of the worst streets in St. Henri. It was an apartment haphazardly cobbled together from odds and ends. Leftovers from other projects became slanted paint-stained floors and grey linoleum panels where a ceiling should have been. This ceiling wasn’t entirely solid. The panels lifted up when poked. The building’s foundation was sinking. Something or someone had chewed at the walls. The people who lived here last must have had pit bulls, like everyone else on the street. My friends politely declined to visit and when I showed them pictures of my new place, they asked me if it was a squat.

“No, I pay rent,” I insisted.

My downstairs neighbours were a young, married Spanish-speaking couple and their newborn son. You could tell they were horrified by their surroundings but were too polite to say anything. Every day I watched the husband set off for English classes in the morning, with a backpack and a plastic coffee mug. He looked determined. The same toughness emitted from his wife’s face as she pushed her baby stroller up and down St. Ferdinand on her own, ignoring the yapping dogs that at any moment could have broken through the flimsy fences.

The wife never integrated with the other new mothers on the street—the ones who asked me to buy them a bottle of rum the first day I moved in. I did and watched from my balcony as they passed the bottle around while their children drew on the sidewalk in pastel chalk.

One day I watched the young couple push a twin mattress out their window. Through the same window, I watched a new queen-sized bed being assembled. They weren’t going to be staying in St. Henri for very long. They had too much aspiration for upward social mobility. You could picture them in the suburbs many years later, comfortably settled; in their backyard, with BBQ burgers and margaritas, regaling their friends and neighbours with the story of their very first mattress in Canada, and other such quirky anecdotes about slumming it on the bottom rung.

It came as no surprise that they left without saying goodbye. A French-Canadian single mother of three moved into their apartment. I don’t remember much about her. Only that I thought she was pretty and one of her children was named Brunette. Her only possession, apart from her clothes and the baby clothes, was a huge flat-screen TV. I know this because she didn’t have curtains.

My neighbours across the hall sold pot and eventually got arrested. Even so, my landlord insisted that the building consisted of “mostly students.” It was flattering that he found me so upstanding as to have to lie like that.

St. Henri doesn’t come to mind when you think of the good things about Montreal. I couldn’t tell you why I loved it there. It had nothing to do with the draw of post-collegiate poverty tourism. I’ve lived in other working-class neighbourhoods. And some sub-working-class neighbourhoods. I’ve lived in buildings with appliances in the front yards, windows that wouldn’t open, doors that stuck, landlords that were never there, neighbours who looked either frightened or frightening; where men in sneakers were always shuffling in and out and passersby looked like they hadn’t known a day of joy in their lives. That wasn’t what I was after. Nor was it the French-Canadian joie de vivre that I was so taken with. Hell, I barely even like Montreal. It’s cold and cruel and unforgiving in a small-town sort of way. Past mistakes hang in the air like a thick fog. In a larger, faster city, the bad air would have long dissipated. Your wrongdoings would be broken up and sent in a dozen different directions by the city’s massive subway system. People would have forgotten because they’d be too busy worrying about what to do with their own dirty laundry. But not in Montreal: where everyone’s so laid back and no-one’s ever too busy to point out that dumb thing you did years ago–where you wear your past like a beehive over your head.

Out of town friends ask whether there is anything there. “Is there a landmark? Something I would notice?” Well, as far as amenities go, there’s a strip club, with a sleazy dive bar adjacent. There’s a Dollarama and a pharmacy, a bank and all of that normal stuff. Maybe there is more than the usual number of futon stores. There’s a farmer’s market near the flossier quarters. More importantly, there are train tracks and memories and overdue library books I still have.

The trains brought with them a special kind of traveller; punk kids that fashioned outfits out of fur and aluminum cans and settled around the Fattal Lofts, which was a microcosm all its own. But I didn’t interact with them much, apart from picking up their empties some mornings to return for small change.

“But what’s it known for?” Factories. Factories that used to make all sorts of stuff and then stopped and now exist as is, like dinosaur carcasses, decaying beautifully. There is something peaceful about that. About being in a place where purposelessness and empty lots still exist.

They call it the working class but I didn’t know too many people who actually worked. Meaning that, in the summertime, you got the sense that somewhere someone was drinking sangria on their porch and you could probably join them if you really wanted to. There was always a sense of adventure. That something might happen. Something fun! You might meet someone who shares your views on stuff!

People kept their doors open; let you peek inside their lives. From the street, you could see tiny, well-loved kitchens or bedrooms with fleur-de-lis flags and TVs they don’t make anymore. I liked that. I liked the way it was slightly cut off from the rest of the world. It felt like living in the fringes. I liked the way the sidewalks were cracked and bumpy and uneven. It was a place where you would occasionally see a dead cat on the street. People hung their laundry outside to dry. Everywhere you looked you’d see evidence of lives being lived.

I lived there for a year. Not nearly enough time to claim it as my own. Maybe I haven’t lived in too many other places. Maybe NOLA is nice and Detroit is nice but I can’t get my shit together enough to get a passport and find out. My mom came from Toronto to help me pack the place up. My very accommodating landlord wasn’t so much concerned with cleaning the place (we both knew this was impossible) as me just getting all the stuff out of there. My mom had a real flair for throwing out my favourite things and packing up just the trash.

“This is no way for a person to live,” she observed sharply.

By the time we were done, there was so much garbage, my curb space alone couldn’t contain it. So, we started putting my trash on other people’s curbs. We snuck a little bit of garbage, just a bag here, a bag there, into everyone’s piles, until the whole street was overflowing with my garbage. My whole life spread out like that.

The next morning the garbage man diligently shoved everything into his truck. Mostly everything; throwing my old couch in with one arm. After he was done, some of the garbage was still strewn about the street. I recognized a mannequin’s leg and a plethora of pizza flyers I was supposed to deliver for a local deli, lining the sidewalks.

I moved back to suburban Toronto to live with my parents. There I was confronted by houses and people and dogs and strangers that all spoke different languages. And roofs that all looked the same. And past that suburb was one just like it, but with a different name. I no longer saw pitbulls. Not that I particularly like pit bulls. I just got used to seeing them. They are a part of the scenery that I have grown accustomed to, like the chirping of birds. In the suburbs, there were no sounds here that I recognized as familiar. The noises that I was used to were gone: the train tracks, the dogs, the elderly French-Canadian couple yelling at one another, the police sirens that made me sit straight up in the middle of the night.

Suburban dogs don’t yap or snap. They wag their tails; they obediently follow their owners. They don’t try to jump over the fences. In the suburbs, people tried very hard to be nice to me, and I tried very hard to be nice back. I made small talk with those people. I smiled and said, “thank you.” I was overly gracious with them because I didn’t care about their dreams.

I am no longer in the fringes because when you live in the fringes, it’s acceptable not to work and to drink rum in the daytime and live off of dollar store chocolate. And what’s more, I heard some kid from Fattal built a fully functioning guillotine. The welding shop on Rosa De Lima takes apprentices sometimes if you were looking for something to do. The graffitied walls of the Death House. In the fringes, I’d walk to the dep to get coffee at 8am and would end up at a bonfire that was still going. The old couple down the block who sat outside their house playing cards and drinking Coronas day in and day out. They’ve been doing this for the last 35 years and will continue to do so until their dying day. For them, the sun rises differently. More happiness is possible.

 


VERA OLEYNIKOVA is a set and costume designer, props master, carpenter and freelance writer currently living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Though Catalog, The McGill Daily, The L Magazine and online music publications.

Copyright © 2019 by Vera Oleynikova. All rights reserved.